When your child reaches toddlerhood, there is a burst in development as she begins to walk, talk, and start potty training, but self-dressing is particularly essential because it uses so many different skills. "A child being able to dress herself is such an important psychological and emotional milestone," says Karen Ruskin, Psy.D., LMFT, a family therapist in Sharon, Massachusetts. Because children are driven to be independent, you can bet that your own tot's got her eye on wearing that floral-print bathing suit of hers -- even on a frosty January day! Without opportunities to experience being independent, the less confident a child will feel. The feeling of accomplishment really affects a child's self-esteem in a positive way, Dr. Ruskin says. Self-dressing also lays the foundation for being able to tackle additional gross and fine motor challenges, like gripping objects (e.g., writing, drawing, cutting) and self-feeding.
Type of Development: Cognitive, Gross Motor, and Fine Motor Skills
Just as there's a variety of clothes to wear, there are a variety of skills a child needs to master when it comes to dressing herself, says Emily Austin, an occupational therapist at Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. These skills include:
Gross motor: lifting arms and legs in specific coordinated motions into shirt sleeves and pant legs, and balancing to take off shoes and pants
Fine motor: being able to use fingers to manipulate small objects (zippers, buttons, buckles, and laces)
Cognitive: being able to understand the sequence of putting on clothing and to think about how seasons and temperature affect what should be worn
When to Expect Self-Dressing to Begin
Before your kiddo masters the art of dressing, you should expect her to undress first and take off socks, shoes, and pants. "Around 18 months of age, and sometimes even younger, toddlers will start undressing themselves because it doesn't require as much skill," says Kenneth Polin, M.D., a pediatrician at Town and Country Pediatrics in Chicago. "They're like little Houdinis and can get out of anything. Parents shouldn't be surprised to walk into their child's bedroom in the morning and find her with nothing on." Your mini nudist won't take an interest in putting clothes on until she's about 2 1/2 to 3 years old. Usually, "around this time she will put on simple things, like T-shirts and dresses, without any complicated buttons or zippers," Dr. Polin says.
What Self-Dressing Milestones Parents Should Expect
Once your child does start to wear clothes on her own, don't be surprised or disappointed if she wears her shirt backward and her rainbow tights inside out. Instead, recognize her effort as a job well done. If you're headed out for the day, you may want to gently explain that her shirt needs to be adjusted, but if she protests, let it be and continue to focus on the positive. Emotionally, your newly bedecked babe will be going through a range of feelings, Dr. Ruskin says. "Emotions can shift within seconds. She can go from joy at putting on her favorite pink dress to frustration at not being able to get a piece of clothing on or at feeling that a shirt seems too tight," Dr. Ruskin adds. So remember to offer praise and encouragement.
During the initial stages of learning to get dressed, everyone in the family needs to be doubly patient and support a child's newfound progression towards childhood, Dr. Polin says. Chances are, her room will be covered in a multitude of outfits, as she'll want to change frequently to show off her personality and her pride in acquiring new skills. But even you may be hustling to get out the door in the morning, give her the space and time to get dressed.
Red Flags to Watch For
If your child isn't dressing himself by 30 months, ask yourself, "Am I always pitching in and doing it for him?" If the answer is "yes," the solution might be as simple as giving him the space to fiddle with buttons and zippers on his own. But if your child still seems to be struggling with taking off socks and shoes (if he still can't pull off a sock after a significant amount of time or has a poor grip), he may have decreased strength and motor planning or sensory issues. If you suspect this might be the case, contact your pediatrician for a more thorough evaluation.
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